The Demise of the Traditional Family Dinner
by Meredith McKinnie
I could write an entire series on how my mother, Lorraine, got it right as a parent. She taught me love, trust, the importance of ambition and independence, but more importantly, she taught me the value of family. Her motto is and always has been “Family First.” Knowing what I know now, I wish I had carried around a journal, keeping track of all her and my dad’s sayings, as they all ring true in my adult life, but I remember that one vividly. And not just because she said it, but because she practiced it. Some of my fondest memories growing up and since happened around the dinner table, that small wooden four-chair table with two extra seats in the corner of the room for company. There was no TV distracting us; we made our own noise, communicating. We shared laughs, tears, triumphs and failures. I did my homework at that table. We debated my first car at that table. Dad taught me how to do my taxes at that table. That table is the epicenter of our home, where we convene together, as individuals, but more importantly, as a family.
We even had unofficial, designated seats. I would sit across from Dad, Bonnie across from Mom, and even in larger gatherings in the formal dining room, Dad at the head of the table and Mom across. She was always the last to sit down, making everyone welcome and comfortable. Mom even had couches put in the kitchen, two of them, so all of us could sit in there and talk as food was prepared, so she wouldn’t miss a moment of us…God, how lucky we were. She revels in entertaining, planning her menus weeks in advance and paying attention to detail. I hate that it took me later seeing how the other half lived, those not blessed with this custom, those not blessed with my mother, to appreciate it and her.
I’ve noticed a growing trend that concerns me, the restaurant family dinner. And I’m not talking the occasional outing. I mean family gatherings, holidays, birthdays (where, God forbid, you have to buy a present and cover the tab), all under chain restaurant roofs. No consistency, no familiarity, no intimacy, just a group blending in with the rush of society, no special touches, no fresh flowers picked from the garden, no Mamaw’s coconut cake recipe, no comfort sitting upon the needlepoint seats my mother stitched by hand before I was born, no before the meal couch time and after, all stuffed lounging on couches together and chuckling well into the afternoon, no staying until the next meal rolls around to consume leftovers, because you actually feel wanted. Mom wants us there; it’s such a blessing to feel wanted rather than simply squeezed in to someone’s schedule. Instead, people hurry to meet at a specified time, hoping to beat the rush, only to get the meal quickly, only to share a few words, to rush back to their lives, apart from one another. Maybe it works for families that don’t enjoy one another, want to keep it short or aren’t close, but it still saddens me.
My friends groan about family gatherings at this establishment and that one, complaining when someone’s birthday rolls around. They dread it. Perhaps they’re just busy, perhaps they’re missing that family dynamic, or perhaps I just lucked out. Restaurants are stuffy, costly to young families, and frankly…dare I say it… lazy. Yep, it’s the easy way out, no dishes, no prep, but a gut punch to the oftentimes miniscule budget of young families. They can’t afford it, but they have to go because it’s family time, and for many, the only time they get. The gathering has gone from something everyone anticipates to something they endure. Home is what’s missing from the modern family dinner.
Lorraine, God love her, won’t tolerate it. They say “Home is where the heart is,” and I’m thankful that rings true for my childhood home. I look forward to family time, oftentimes meeting more than once a week. It’s not a chore for me, or an expense, but rather something I anticipate. Sometimes they’re spur of the moment gatherings, some planned, but they all happen at home, under my family’s roof, with the people that mean the most to me, the people whose time and attention I cherish. Yes, mothers now work; we’re all so busy. Maybe we’re too busy. Ironically, Lorraine always worked, still does, yet she wants to make her home the center of our togetherness, our safe place, where we can be ourselves and soak up those moments that come fewer as we build our own lives.